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What Are the Dangers of Putting Election Deniers in Charge of Elections?

Some candidates for secretary of state still dispute the 2020 election. They may not be able to change future outcomes, but they can sow distrust and uncertainty.

A voter places her ballot for the coming midterm elections in a drop box in Mesa, Ariz.
(Olivier Touron/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
Wyoming state Rep. Chuck Gray has called the 2020 presidential election “fraudulent” and “illegitimate.” He’s going to be elected secretary of state next week, since he's running unopposed after winning the GOP primary in August. His views are considered so extreme by some of his fellow Republicans that a legislative committee quickly voted after the primary to strip election duties out of the secretary of state’s office.

Hundreds of Republican nominees for congressional and statewide offices continue to deny the results of the 2020 election. Many, if not a majority, are favored to win. "Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I'm elected governor," GOP nominee Tim Michels said on Monday.

The ranks of deniers also include the GOP nominees for secretary of state in states including presidential battlegrounds such as Arizona, Michigan and Nevada. Polls indicate that most of them are trailing, but not all.

“The relentless lies and the assault on one of the most foundational parts of our democracy is just reprehensible,” says Phil Keisling, a Democrat and former Oregon secretary of state. “That sense of bipartisanship when it comes down to counting the votes has been an essential part of our small-d democratic tradition for as long as we've been a nation. To see it come under this kind of assault, and see such deterioration of trust over such a short period of time based on lies and fantasies and fever dreams, is one of the worst things that's happened in my lifetime.”

There are many ways a secretary of state, or other top election official, can make outcomes more uncertain. They can push for more restrictive voting rules, call for endless audits or refuse to certify winners. All this can lead to greater distrust and potentially violence.

It’s the last scenario that concerns David Becker, founder and director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. “If a bad actor were to hold one of those positions and refuse to certify elections, it could lead to greater uncertainty in a particular state’s election,” he says. “Having someone who fundamentally doesn't believe in American democracy, who attacks the very process by which we resolve our political disagreements, could potentially lead to an environment where political violence is possible."

Becker is the coauthor, with Major Garrett, of The Big Truth: Upholding Democracy in the Age of “The Big Lie.” He previously served as director of the elections program at the Pew Charitable Trusts and was an attorney with the voting section at the Department of Justice.

Becker spoke with Governing about where election administration may be heading in this fraught moment. Here are edited excerpts of that interview:

Governing: Are there ways that a secretary of state or other statewide election official can put his or her thumb on the scale? The famous example is President Trump calling Brad Raffensperger in Georgia and demanding that he find 12,000 votes to swing the state. Could something like that occur?

David Becker: I am not particularly concerned that an election denier in a secretary of state's office could anoint the loser of an election as the winner. Brad Raffensperger acted with integrity and courage when he got that call, but there really wasn't a mechanism in early January, after the election had been certified, to just add 11,780 votes to one part of the ledger. That's one of the things that should give voters confidence. Every single number in certified election results can be traced back to a ballot.

We have more paper ballots that we can actually trace it back to than ever before, and those ballots are audited and often recounted. So it's really difficult for even a bad actor in one of those offices to just anoint the loser. And it's not like the winning candidate is just going to roll over. They're going to go to court, and the courts have acted with a lot of integrity to maintain that process.

Governing: What are the dangers of putting people in charge of elections who express doubts about elections?

Becker: We have to recognize that secretaries of state don't run elections. It's often a shorthand that we use, but it's an inaccurate one. The people who actually run elections — the people who will actually print ballots and send ballots out and find polling places and train poll workers — are the county and local election officials. But a secretary of state or a chief election official who spreads disinformation or lies about elections, who seems to be campaigning on a platform based on those lies — that elections are only secure if my candidate wins — could be very damaging to the process and to voter confidence.

They could fail to support their local election officials adequately, they could create some uncertainty in the standards that apply statewide, they could seek to weaken the guardrails of democracy to allow for losing candidates to raise questions about election results post-election. We see this already with the efforts to encourage hand counting of ballots, which is less accurate and takes much more time.
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Governing: In 2018, when he was governor of Maine, Paul LePage signed a congressional election certificate, but he wrote “stolen election” next to his signature. Are there laws in place that can force officials to certify results they don’t agree with?

Becker: The short answer is yes. It’s already happened in Otero, N.M., just this summer. The county commission refused to certify the primary election results. The reason they gave — and this is a direct quote — is that they had a “gut feeling” that they couldn’t trust the machines. They had no evidence. And the secretary of state and the attorney general quickly went to the New Mexico Supreme Court, which directed them that they had to certify under state law.

So the legal system does have provisions that can compel certification. If you think an election is stolen, our legal system requires you to come up with evidence. It requires you to put up or shut up. The courts are very well suited to resolve this. You might not like how they resolve them — half the people won't — but that is the way our system works.

Governing: We’re seeing election administrators at both the state and local levels physically threatened, as well as being sued and inundated with unending freedom of information requests as a sort of denial-of-service attack. The top election officials in 10 of Nevada’s 17 counties have decided to leave, amid harassment campaigns. How worried are you not only about election administrators doing their jobs but people wanting to do these jobs in this environment?

Becker: First, I should say that we have more professionalism and election administration than we ever have in the United States. The system of running elections in the United States is as professional as it's ever been. And it's a model for the rest of the world. There are a lot of reasons for that. The 2000 election in Florida made us an international laughingstock. Now, in Florida, every voter in Florida can vote easily by mail or early in person or on Election Day. They have laws that allow for pre-processing of ballots, so they quickly deliver out results completely transparently. The county election officials, Democrats and Republicans, do a remarkable job of working together, and creating a process with maximum integrity, while making it also very easy to vote. That's a demonstration of how professional this system has gotten. And that's the case nationwide.

But now in the last few years, we have seen an endless campaign of harassment and threats being directed at election officials not because they did their job poorly, but because they achieved one of the greatest successes of the democratic process in history — somehow managing the highest turnout over the past century, by a large margin, in the middle of a global pandemic. They achieved all this and their reward has been constant harassment and threats.

This campaign of harassment is taking its toll. And many are leaving, or thinking about leaving, and wondering whether it's all worth it. Your best-case scenario is anonymity. Your best-case scenario is no one's talking about the election on the Wednesday after an election. Instead, their reward for a job well done is receiving threats, their staff are receiving threats, their facilities are threatened, their families are threatened. Their spouses are receiving sexually violent threats. They're getting texts with the names of their children and a photograph of their children's school. You can understand why they might be wondering whether they can keep doing this. And yet, the majority are, which shows you how professional they are and how sacred they feel that their duty is.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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